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A “Ruse” On Morality April 5, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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One of the most important and intriguing ideas to come out of modern biology is that human morality is largely a product of our evolutionary history. The consensus view among biologists is that the tendency to be generous, fair, and kind to others, at least in some contexts, confers a survival advantage on beings like us who must cooperate to survive. This is not to say that we aren’t self-interested as well; rather we are a battleground between self-interested desires and desires directed at the good of others. [-See Michael’s recent post on this topic]

But I am puzzled by some of the conclusions scientists and some philosophers often draw from this. Here is Michael Ruse on the implications of this research:

God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam. […]

Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothache and marking student papers. But it is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down. […]

So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjective.[…]

Am I now giving the game away? Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral

This is just utter nonsense. True, morality is rooted in emotions and desires which are explained by our evolutionary history, but it is not just a mere preference like a preference for ice cream. A human being who dislikes ice cream will do fine; a person who lacks moral emotions will likely end up in prison. From the fact that something is an emotion or desire it does not follow that it lacks import.

Surely, the fact that a practice enables me to cooperate with others in order to secure goods and to respond responsibly to the needs of others are “grounds” to pursue that practice. They are not “apriori” grounds but philosophers long ago gave up the notion that “rational” is identical to “apriori”.

Morality isn’t “pretending” to be something other than emotion. Everyone except a few hyper-rationalist philosophers are quite aware of the emotional content of morality. But morality can’t be only emotional if it is to perform its function. The fact that it is rooted in emotion does not entail that is opposed to reason or immune to self-control. Emotions have be properly trained and habituated if they are to serve our interests—they are not merely urges.

And if morality is a function of natural selection, how on earth is it an “illusion” or “subjective”? It would seem to be both real and objective. Granted, as intelligent, self-reflective beings we have lots of control over when and how we express these moral emotions. We can resist moral impulses if we wish, just as we can resist the desire to eat ice cream. But that fact does not entail that morality is an illusion—it is a central feature of the human condition as real as hearts, lungs, and language.

Instead of being puzzled about morality’s pretentions, Ruse should wonder about why an interest in science leads some people to be contemptuous of ordinary human traits.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Know-Nothing Philosophers? March 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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Recently, there have been a number of books written by well-known philosophers—Thomas Nagle and Jerry Fodor in particular—calling into question fundamental features of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Philosopher of Science Michael Ruse has a readable take-down of this trend.

What does one say about these critics? One could certainly pick apart individual things, for instance Fodor’s claims about selective breeding versus natural selection.[…]

But rather than work over the details, I want to draw attention to the way this crop of critics ignores evolutionary biology—aside from the kind of cherry-picking in which Fodor engages. Nagel may sneer about the failure to find “accessible literature” that answers his worries. In what part of the library was he doing his literature search? Where, for example, is any discussion of the Grants’ work on the Galápagos finches? What about a detailed look at the new scholarship that is challenging earlier thinking about the evolution of bipedalism? What about the discoveries of molecular biology and of the similarities (homologies) between humans and fruit flies? And why no mention of Marc Hauser and his work uncovering the secrets of moral thinking? There is a deafening silence on those and other issues. Fodor, Nagel, and Plantinga don’t need to turn themselves into biochemists, but some awareness of the issues and advances would not be entirely misplaced.

Ruse points to a problem that I thought was an artifact of a bygone era. Earlier generations of philosophers often theorized about science without having much knowledge of science. But I thought contemporary philosophers had largely given up that approach and today endeavor to learn the science before pontificating about it.

So why are these respected philosophers returning to the bad old days? Ruse speculates:

This total lack of interest in the science is surely suggestive. The critics are being driven by other, for them deeper, concerns. And as an evolutionist, I turn to the past for clues. What fueled the initial opposition to Darwin was a concern with our species, with Homo sapiens. For 150 years, since the Origin, critics have feared that we humans might become part of the evolutionary picture—not just our bodies, but our minds, our very souls. What makes us distinctively and uniquely human? This worry is still alive and well in today’s philosophical community. Plantinga is open in his fear that Darwinism makes impossible the guaranteed existence of our species. More, for years he has argued that Darwinism is bound up with the metaphysical belief that everything is natural (as opposed to supernatural), and that this leads to a collapse of rational belief and knowledge. The chance elements in Darwinism are simply not compatible with Plantinga’s Christian faith.

As nonbelievers, Nagel and Fodor are a bit different, but not that different. For years Nagel has argued against a reductive view of the human mind, believing it to be more than just molecules in motion—the obvious end result of Darwinism. At some level, Nagel believes, the mind is above the material. It is perhaps a stretch, but probably not too much of a stretch, to say that the kind of sympathetic attitude that Nagel takes toward intelligent design points not so much to a concealed theism (akin to Plantinga’s open theism) as to a kind of vitalism, in which there are nonnatural, nonphysical forces that direct things in the material world.

And then there is Fodor. The final section of his new book is very revealing. As a dreadful warning to those who do not accept his main conclusions, Fodor prints passage after passage of claims by Darwinians that one can understand human nature and thinking as the product of natural selection: This is where we will all end up if we don’t stop the rot right now. My suspicion is that Fodor doesn’t really give a damn about fruit flies or finches or anything else out there. But when it comes to Homo sapiens, he wants no part of a naturalistic explanation that reduces design to the workings of blind law. There may not be a God, but we sure are made in his image.

This strikes me as a plausible explanation. There is, even among some philosophers, reluctance to acknowledge that we are, as Brad Delong puts it, “jumped up East African Plains Apes”. This is especially true of philosophers, like Fodor and Nagle, who have built a career arguing that mental properties are irreducible.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

I Think, therefore I Have No Time to for Skepticism March 23, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Descartes famously posed the problem of global knowledge skepticism by asking us to prove that we are not always dreaming.

Philosopher of science Michael Ruse thinks this is a fascinating question:

I truly remember my first day in philosophy class and thinking: “Gosh, I am not the only person who really wonders if they are awake or asleep. I have been thinking about this since I was a kid and never could solve it. I am not a nut-case to be worrying about this. […] I want to suggest that the Meditations is a bit of a litmus test. Either you are hooked or you are not. […]

Humans are divided by nature into two essential types. This is not male or female, or straight or gay, or whatever. It is between those who think that philosophy, as marked by Descartes’ Meditations, is the only thing that truly makes worthwhile the life of a human being, and those who think that philosophy is really a little bit daft but we have to let our spouses have their silly enthusiasms

I was never fascinated by global knowledge skepticism (and I remain unconvinced that it is worth thinking too hard about). Logical possibilities are not as interesting as real possibilities. My entry to philosophy was a worry about whether I had free will given the social influences I was learning about in sociology.

And I think it is rather silly to make a fascination with global knowledge skepticism a litmus test. There have been countless philosophers—Aristotle, Nietzsche, Pierce, Wittgenstein, Rorty, etc.—who thought such questions a waste of time.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com